Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Post-summit, S.D. governor announces pheasant task force

Huron, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard took the first step in addressing concerns about pheasant numbers and wildlife habitat in his state by announcing Friday, Dec. 6 that he will form a task force to continue working through ideas that came forward that day.

Daugaard set up a one-day “pheasant habitat summit” for Friday, Dec. 6 in Huron, S.D., where more than 500 biologists, landowners, sportsmen, university professors, and tourism officials gathered to officially begin addressing concerns that have been discussed among South Dakota residents and pheasant hunters the past several years.

Daugaard called for the summit after South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks reported in August that its pheasant survey showed a 64-percent statewide decrease in bird numbers from 2012. That is the second largest decrease in bird numbers since 1949, when the survey began.

In 2007, the South Dakota pheasant population was estimated at about 12 million birds. Numbers have been dropping since then, and with a 64-percent decrease from 2012, GFP officials say the statewide pheasant population estimate is most likely less than 3 million birds.

In opening the summit, Daugaard said pheasant hunting is the second largest economic driver in his state after agriculture.

Although South Dakota still has the nation’s highest pheasant population, hunters traveling to the state for pheasants have declined, too. Not only has that had an effect on the state’s economy, Daugaard is also concerned about any potential effects on the state’s pheasant hunting traditions and culture.

Through Nov. 25, the sale of small game licenses needed for pheasant hunting was about 25,500 below last year. That translates into to a $2.375 million loss in license revenue for the GFP, not to mention associated losses to the state’s tourism industry that would far outweigh the loss in license sales.

Minnesota and Wisconsin rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in terms of nonresident pheasant hunters visiting South Dakota. Last year, Minnesota sent 23,727 across the border; 8,592 Wisconsin hunters visited the state.

During Friday’s summit, the list of speakers reviewed problems facing South Dakota’s farmers, ranchers, tourism industry, and pheasants. In the afternoon, summit goers broke into groups in an attempt to further identify problems and list possible solutions. Speakers included South Dakota GFP Director Tony Leif, Dr. Barry Dunn of South Dakota State University, Bruce Knight, the founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions, and Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice president of governmental affairs.

All speakers touched on different aspects of the role that the Conservation Reserve Program – and its recent and continued cutbacks – play in pheasant habitat and numbers. As CRP acres decrease, much of that land is converted to row cropping, and that leaves less room for pheasants – and all wildlife species – to roam.

At the end of the day, Daugaard identified the creation of a task force, or “work group” in the governor’s words, as his next step in addressing habitat concerns in South Dakota. That work group has not yet been assembled, but Nathan Sanderson, policy advisor for Daugaard, said the task force will be formed by the first of the new year, or very shortly thereafter. Sanderson expects fewer than 10 citizen members to be appointed.In opening the summit, Daugaard said pheasant hunting is one of South Dakota’s proudest traditions, one that he wants to see continue.

“For quite a while we’ve been hearing from folks interested in talking about pheasants – even before we were hearing that brood counts were down. The purpose today is to bring together a wide variety of people to talk about what’s happening right now. How does South Dakota continue to support agriculture alongside our renowned pastime? I don’t believe there has to be a conflict between pheasant hunting and agriculture,” Daugaard said.

Tony Leif

Leif reviewed South Dakota’s pheasant history and modern-day harvests. The first attempt to release pheasants came in Minnehaha County in 1898, when chicks hatched from a penned “rooster and couple of hens” were released. Those birds eventually died out.

The next release came in 1908 near Huron, when A.E. Cooper and E.L. Ebbert had pairs of ringnecks shipped in from Pennsylvania. Those birds didn’t survive. In 1909 a few dozen wild birds were released south of Doland in Spink County. Those birds were the origin of pheasants in South Dakota.

GFP and the Redfield Chamber of Commerce then got together with landowners to trap and transfer  pheasants throughout Spink County.

After that, a game warden by the last name of Bankfrot displayed 200 pairs of pheasants at the state fair and gave one rooster and three hens to farmers along the James River.

The state’s first pheasant season came in 1919 in Spink County. Hunters were allowed two birds during the one-day season. An estimated 200 roosters were shot in one day.

A summary of pheasant seasons followed:

• 1920 – The season went to two days in two counties, Nov. 4-5, with a two-bird limit and an estimated harvest of 1,000 roosters.
• 1921 – There were four different season frameworks in five counties during the week of Thanksgiving. That year Spink County had three days and a bag limit of two birds. Huron County was at two days and two birds per day.
• 1922 – 11 counties were open to varying season frameworks.
• 1923 – The state started identifying primary range (six-day seasons) and secondary range (two days), with a bag limit of two birds in each zone.
• 1928 –  40-day seasons prevailed in the primary zone, which was most of eastern South Dakota by that time. Secondary range had mostly 30-day seasons, but there were also 15- and two-day seasons in some areas.
• 1931 – This marked the first year that the season opened at noon. Leif said no one today knows how or why that opening day start time came about. “The best answer is that it is steeped in tradition and is pretty well ingrained in our society,” he said.
• 1933 – All but four counties were open for hunting, with most eastern counties in the primary zone.
• 1934 – The entire state was open, just 15 years after the first season. There were four season frameworks of 30, 15, five and two days in three zones. One bird could be a hen and there was a five-bird bag in the primary and secondary zones.
• 1944-45 – The state had 163 days of hunting, the longest seasons in state history.

Leif noted that after World War II, fields that had been idled went back into production and the labor force increased.

Over the first three decades, bird numbers grew steadily, with just one dip in 1937 following a tough winter. In 1945, an estimated 7.5 million birds were harvested.

“We had a lot of hunters and bird numbers created a lot of excitement. We had 87,000 nonresidents in 1945; 84,000 in 1946,” Leif said. In 1947, the Legislature banned nonresidents for the first 10 days of the season, and also banned nonresidents from hunting waterfowl at all.

In 1947, nonresident numbers dropped to 13,000, but rose to 26,000 in 1948. In 1949, the Legislature reversed the ban on nonresident hunting for pheasants the first 10 days of the season, but the waterfowl ban stayed in place for many more years.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were the Soil Bank days. “That was the birth of what we now know as CRP, although Soil Bank was a very different program, and a short-lived program. It lasted only through the early 1960s. Pheasant numbers went up through the Soil Bank years, then dipped from 1966 through 1978. There was concern then about the low number of birds harvested,” Leif said.

The state formed the South Dakota Pheasant Congress in 1975 with 150 groups. In 1977 the state created the pheasant restoration stamp for $5, with the money going to overall habitat, but with a focus on nesting habitat.

“We learned from Soil Bank days that idled grasses were great for pheasants,” Leif said.

The state enrolled 25,000 acres in state Pheasant Congress programs, and that helped local numbers, but it had little effect on the statewide scene. Then came CRP via the 1985 Farm Bill, with 10- and 15-year contracts, that converted cropland to idled grassland.

There were also environmental benefits to CRP, including reduced erosion, improved water quality, and improved wildlife habitat for many species beyond pheasants.

When CRP came along, GFP revised its habitat program. In 1988, the $5 pheasant restoration stamp became an $8 habitat stamp. That complemented CRP, and added winter cover, woody cover, and food plots. It was also the birth of the state’s Walk-In Area program.

From 1980 through 2010, pheasant harvest went from 1.1 million birds to more than 2 million in 2008.

In 1990, CRP enrollment was at 1.74 million acres, but that acreage didn’t really overlap the state’s primary pheasant range. In 1999 a shift in the Farm Bill connected CRP to wetlands, and in 2007 the state had 1.56 million acres, but with more CRP acres shifted to the eastern part of state. That’s when South Dakota saw its highest pheasant harvest ever.

“Where do we go from here? Our harvest dropped from just under 2 million in 2010 to 1.5 million in 2012. We’re waiting to see where 2013 comes in,” Leif said.

Dr. Barry Dunn

Dunn is a South Dakota native who grew up on a farm and continues to farm today. He reviewed several studies that are trying to monitor the amount of “conversion” – bringing grasslands under cultivation – taking place in South Dakota.

He noted that none of the studies fully agree on just how many acres have been converted, but the needle seems to be settling – with some research still being completed – on about 2 million acres being converted to agriculture over the past five to seven years. Some of the conversion has to do with land coming out of CRP and going into corn production for the ethanol industry.

Dunn noted that twice in the state’s history the federal government has “bought back” land from farmers – during the Soil Bank era (1.7 million acres) and earlier in the CRP program (1.8 million acres). He noted that following both of those “buy backs,” the state saw some of its highest pheasant harvests.

South Dakota covers 49.1 million acres, but it’s a diverse state. About 80 percent of that acreage is privately owned and much of that private ownership is involved in farming or ranching.

“The land is privately owned, but the wildlife belongs to the public,” Dunn said. “That goes back to why your ancestors came to America. During the feudal days in Europe, the game belonged to the king. This is the underpinning – that wildlife of America belongs to the public, but it puts a huge responsibility on landowners.”

Dunn said that despite all of the advancements in farm crop harvest technology on machinery, research in seed and genetics has grown even faster.

“Seed corn now has more genetic potential than you can harvest,” he said, adding that there is a 40-bushels-per-acre difference between what can be grown with today’s seeds and what can be harvested with today’s machinery.

South Dakota lands are identified as one of four classes, with Class I and Class II lands being the best for farming.

“I recommend precision farming on Class I and II lands. The marginal cost of getting one more bushel per acre off Class I land is much less expensive than getting one more bushel off Class III or Class IV lands,” he said, implying that Class III and Class IV lands be set aside for wildlife habitat.

Bruce Knight

Knight said habitat is going to continue to be pressured.

“This is not a one-year problem. The global population is driving land use today,” he said.

If climate change actually is occurring, then there will be even more pressure to produce food on marginal acreage.

“The pressure on South Dakota grasslands will continue. There are no simple solutions. The days of idled land conservation are likely behind us. And, we need to include the ranching community in the solutions,” Knight said.

“Nothing will bring out the birds like starting the tractor and feeding the cows,” he added.

Knight said there is one thing for sure – whatever answers Daugaard’s task force comes up with will not be found in the current farm bill.

“Congress does not have a clue about this. The conservation and ag community is really wrestling with this,” he said.

“For the last generation (of farmers) it was genetics, mechanization, and labor. We laugh at 16-foot equipment now. We no longer farm by the acre, we farm by the inch. We are now thinking maximum moisture, fuel efficiency, nutrients, sunlight, and space,” he added.

Knight noted that small grains, like wheat, are losing acreage to corn. That’s a concern because small grains – cut with high stubble – are the No. 2 habitat type for pheasants and other upland birds.

And these different types of conversions are not just happening in South Dakota, but in other states, as well.

“We have to build an alliance between conservation groups and the farm community around crop insurance,” he said.

Dave Nomsen

Nomsen, of the 140,000-member Pheasants Forever, started working for the organization in 1992. His message was that pheasants and farming can coexist in South Dakota. Nomsen reviewed Pheasant Forever’s farm bill biologist program. PF hires wildlife biologists and puts them to work for landowners in pheasant states. PF has six or eight farm bill biologists in South Dakota.

“Our farm bill biologists can help landowners design plans for farms and ranches. We have quite a team around the country,” he said. “One thing we’re challenged with is developing new programs and opportunities to give more help to farmers and ranchers.”

Farm bill biologists are just one way PF can help stem the conversion tide.

Nomsen also picked up on the discussion about the growing livestock industry.

“We have found that 65 percent of South Dakota’s birds are coming off of non-CRP lands. There are direct strategies toward those lands. Grazing is good for pheasants,” he said.

“We also have to make every single acre count. We have to do a better job of managing state and federal acreage with tools like prescribed burning,” he added.

“We’re also concerned about declining small grains. Tall stubble management is farmer and wildlife friendly – leaving stubble means great brood habitat, reduced chemical costs and weed control. It’s good for farms and wildlife,” he said.

“There is a place for acquisitions, easements, and good tax policy that supports those efforts.

“We can do a better job of managing marginal lands with buffer plots, pollinator plots and other strategies. There is room on every farm and every ranch for wildlife conservation,” he said.

“We have an incredible opportunity given to us, to work with stakeholders and decide if we’re going to save the South Dakota’s pheasant hunting traditions. We hope the answer is yes we can,” he said.

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